An emotional, marathon-long hearing of appeals for common sense — and safety of residents — could not sway the Santa Maria City Council on Thursday to overturn approval of a permit to build a new U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility within city limits.
With more than 1,200 concerned residents crowded in and around the Santa Maria Fairpark Convention Center on a blustery Thursday afternoon turned into evening, council members voted 3-2 to deny four filed appeals of the Santa Maria Planning Commission's Feb. 5 decision to green-light the development of an ICE facility as a relocation from its current site at the Lompoc Federal Penitentiary.
Mayor Alice Patino and Councilwoman Terri Zuniga cast the dissenting votes, adhering to the passionate pleas from residents who feared the federal agency, which handles deportation cases, might randomly round up farmworkers and immigrants.
With the decision, frustrated residents accused the council of caring more for the federal government — and criminals — than for its own law-abiding citizens.
Final say on the project was up to the City Council following appeals filed by the League of United Latin American Citizens, homeowners John McConnell, Suzanne Buhring and Linda Williams, Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement and Orcutt resident Scott Fina.
“This is going to be a long evening,” Patino said at the outset, outlining the 3 p.m. hearing’s rules and process, which was made longer by the city providing Spanish translation for all comments.
A short public comment period kicked off the proceedings, and featured a personal story from Santa Maria High School history teacher Ricardo Valencia. Wearing a red Saints baseball cap and acting as his own translator, Valencia said ICE has deported his uncle, along with the father of one of his students.
“How many council members have had a family member deported?” he said, seeing no hands. “So when ICE comes to us and says they’re not here to deport, that rhetoric is completely false.”
City staff presented a brief report denying that the Planning Commission erred when it voted 3-1 in favor of issuing the building permit for the facility, which is planned for ICE administrative purposes and for working with area prisons and jails to pick up undocumented inmates set for release to determine their deportation status.
The adverse effects on abutting properties of the facility at 740 W. Century were discounted, as well as the reasoning that the facility would negatively impact the health, safety or welfare of nearby residents.
Before and after the report, Councilman Willie Green said the commission did not err and that reversing the decision would be a misuse of the council’s power.
“What is it about that project that you feel is wrong?” he asked a steadily growing crowd.
Appellants each had 20 minutes — 10 of it for translation — to convince the council members to right the mistake of its planning counterpart.
Armed ICE personnel, traffic congestion, holding areas and future facility expansion topped issues, along with emotional appeals for farmworkers, who might be forced to leave a community they love if ICE moves in.
The packed room periodically erupted in a silent waving of hands, since attendees weren’t allowed to clap or talk out of turn.
Developer Dan Blough and ICE representatives gave concise comments, reiterating that the facility near the intersection of Depot Street and McCoy Lane would include just two or three rooms specially built to hold 12 to 15 people.
“As we’ve stated numerous times, this is not going to be a detention center,” ICE Deputy Field Office Director David Marin said. “This is going to be an office space.”
A man then interrupted Marin, holding up a blue sign and repeatedly shouting, “Get ICE out of our community!”
Some of the half-dozen police officers on hand escorted him out, which was followed by a standing ovation and a sharp reprimand from Patino.
“You want to be able to come up and speak ... you have to show the same amount of respect, and you weren’t showing it right there,” she said.
Many of the 100 public speakers echoed the same concerns during one-minute pitches, urging the council to “have a conscience” by recognizing the fear the facility brings residents, however warranted it might be.
In the end, however, the council sided with its planning counterpart, denying the appeals and adjourning the exhaustive meeting just after 11 p.m.